PsyCom recently sat down with Yael Shy, author of What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond and director of Global Spiritual Life at New York University (NYU) to learn more about how meditation can be used to quell anxiety and access greater joy.

Yael Shy

How did you come to discover mediation?

Yael: Throughout most of my life I was an anxious person. The anxiety got worse when I was in college—I was on my own and it was pretty unbearable. The interesting thing was that I wasn’t just anxious about the stuff you would expect—you know grades and succeeding in school and the social stuff. For me it was mainly the larger questions like, what’s the point of being alive when everything dies; what is my purpose; why was I put on Earth and in this life and how do I monetize that; is there any such thing as love?

Very large questions that I felt really lost about. It felt like an existential anxiety and translated into concrete symptoms and problems. I had panic attacks, trouble sleeping, felt lonely all the time.

When I found meditation—it was fairly by accident—I was in a dark place and my mom (a rabbi) suggested I take part in a silent retreat. Neither of us really knew much about meditation and it turned out to be a completely transformative experience for me.

Looking back, I might not necessarily recommend what I did as the best way to experience meditation for the first time. The retreat I took part in was seven full days of silence. Admittedly sort of a harsh way to discover meditation. It was a jump into the deep end and at first I didn’t think I’d last. Just to be clear, I could talk to the teachers and meet with them and ask questions. We just were prohibited from speaking with the other participants and I was the youngest meditator in the group by at least two decades!

But it was through this crash course in what was going on in my mind—especially my anxiety-filled mind—that helped me understand anxiety—what it is and what it’s about—and to understand the anatomy of the mind in that moment. That helped me turn things around.

In your book, What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond, you talk about the college years as being a particularly good time to bring meditation into your life. What is it about that part of life that makes meditation so beneficial.

Yael: As I mentioned, the stress in my life peaked during her college years. My preoccupation with life’s philosophical questions felt like an existential anxiety and translated into concrete symptoms for me and problems. I had panic attacks, trouble sleeping, felt lonely all the time. Young adulthood can be an extremely stressful time for many. There are just lots of difficult periods and stressful transitions. From home to college. Maybe a first relationship and them from school to the real world. Meditation can be a real conduit for self-awareness and a cure during the stressful moments.

When I work with students at NYU I’ve seen the same kind of thing happen. They think that the anxiety in their life is just part of life and it’s just terrible. I think it’s hard to appreciate how much of y our mind is creating your reality, especially when you are young.

So, bringing love and compassion and gentleness to your experience can be extremely beneficial. It sounds cheesy I know but through meditation, you can learn how to really love yourself. And learning to love yourself isn’t something that’s always taught.

How does the experience of sitting with yourself bring clarity and love of self?

Yael: So especially in this day and age I find it’s easier than ever to distract ourselves with our phones and other devices. In doing this though we are distracting ourselves from ourselves, from our strong emotions and from anything else we just don’t want to deal with and would rather just suppress.

But the problem is that all of those strong emotions gets stored in our bodies and we can’t fall asleep at night or it’s just this chronic panic that comes back when we least expect it.

The thing is we can’t distract or run away forever. Meditation allows us to be friends with ourselves and gives us a way to sit with/experience and be comfortable with some of our most painful, uncomfortable feelings and to see that they won’t kill us. Meditation enables us to learn to understand that and make friends with that.

Do you really have to be taught how to meditate? I mean what’s the big deal…all you need to do is just sit in a quiet room, right?

Yael: It seems simple but it’s not. It takes practice and knowledge to learn to clear your mind and stay peaceful and relaxed.

To reap the full benefits of meditation it’s vital to establish a regular, daily time to meditate. Here’s why. Most adults have had experiences where they have been present in the world—maybe it’s when doing something that requires total focus like playing an instrument or when walking in nature or having a really wonderful, honest conversation, the kind of experience when all of your faculties feel alive and you’re flush with life and feel present with while it’s happening. Meditation can enable ability to be present.

I’m not saying that you can only get there through meditation. There are other ways to experience being present with that kind of happiness. The problem is what Sylvia Boorstein, a meditation teacher, says:  that enlightenment, or waking up and being present, is kind of an accident. Through meditation, you make yourself more accident prone. A daily practices helps you set the condition so it’s not this magical thing that you can never go back to. It’s not a “wow that was so special” or something you can’t control when you can get back there.

It becomes a practice that allows a kind of easy access to happiness. It allows happiness to be more a part of your daily life. Being intentional about it helps it become a part of routine.

It’s kind of like this…if you don’t exercise you’ll probably get by in life but if you do more exercise your body will be more limber and healthy, and you’ll feel better on a regular basis. The same goes for meditation. You establish a pattern that allows your mind and heart to be healthy on a more regular basis.

Could meditation be described as a form of therapy? I’m thinking that it’s more accessible than traditional talk therapy with a therapist and perhaps a better way to understand yourself than working with a therapist who is essentially a stranger.

Yael: That’s an interesting idea. I’ve personally benefitted hugely from therapy.  And I’ve found that the two—meditation and therapy—deeply complement each other and have led me to much of the healing I’ve felt in my life. I think they’re both good tools to have in your toolbox.

In your book, you talk about something called the comparing mind. Can you explain what that is and why modern life feeds that mindset so dangerously?

Yael: Comparing mind is a Buddhist phrase but I think it’s very relevant to our lives today. So many of us seem to feel a sense of shakiness. Insecurity about ourselves. Questioning whether or not we’re okay, worthy enough, lovable enough.

So, we’re constantly looking outside of ourselves and comparing. We say, if I’m better looking than this person than maybe I look okay. Or, I’m wealthier or thinner than X person so I’m probably okay.

I don’t think you can ever fully escape the comparing mind but now what makes it particularly insidious for this generation is social media where it’s really easy to live in comparing mind.

You can just be scrolling for hours on social media and be thinking, “EVERYONE has it figured out except for me; everyone is happy or has a better life than me”. It can be such a crushing feeling.

And it goes to question of anxiety because we’re just not sure. There’s a deep anxiety built around—are we being the right person? Are we loveable? But here’s the problem. When coming from the outside—from comparisons—it’s never going to feel great. Even when we come out on top there’s always someone who’s going to beat you. So, we have to tackle that initial impulse to look outside of ourselves for answers to that questions.

We need to fill our hearts with a sense of I’m okay and enough right now and then we can take in the outside world but when we’re constantly looking out, it’s never going to end well. Meditation can help us fill our hearts with self-love and acceptance.

What can we do to get away from social media or resist the urge to be constantly involved with what’s going on there?

Yael: First, recognize that social media is very much an addiction. If you learn to watch the reach, it can help you resist the urge to distract yourself with it constantly. I’m as guilty as everyone. I check social media a lot so I’m right in the heart of it. Some people can cut it out of their lives completely, but most people don’t and others don’t want to. We should acknowledge that there is pleasure in that world but if we bring awareness about how we use social media, it can improve our relationship with it.

One of the places this can happen is during that first moment when we reach. Just pause—even once in the 10 times you’re doing it—and think about why you’re doing it. Ask yourself, why am I reaching? Am I lonely? Am I not open to what’s happening to me right in front of me in this moment? Am I curious and just want to connect with someone? Do I have a fear of missing out?

Make it an opportunity to check in with yourself and ask, is this really what I want to be doing right now? Or is it just a mindless habit?

Maybe the answer is yes, it’s what I want to be doing right now. If that’s the case, reach anyway, that’s fine. But use it experience as  a place where you can insert a pause and check in with yourself. Check in and see how you’re feeling.

You can insert pauses at other points of your day as well. I did this on my walk to work this morning. It’s not a long walk. Only 5 minutes. But the second I got up out of the subway I noticed instinctively reaching for phone and I remembered to pause and just see if I could take in the walk.

Social media is an addiction. You’re reaching because you’re addicted. I purposely resisted the urge on my walk. And although nothing spectacular happened, I noticed the weather, my breathing, my legs walking, and I felt gratitude. I did the short walk with my awareness out instead of in my phone. This is a nice day. That building looks pretty, I’m inhaling, I’m healthy, my feet are moving. It was a connecting time rather than a disconnecting time where I’m scrolling endlessly.

When you allow yourself those kinds of moments insights come up and positive feelings, too. Sometimes your body is begging for your attention for something for you—something is in pain emotionally or physically. And to continue to push it aside by distracting yourself with social media isn’t the best response. It’s like a call to be present to ourselves—a call to return home to ourselves.

Could you talk about gender and if it’s a factor in who is more interested in learning how to meditate. I imagine young college-age men be less open to the idea?

Yael: Sure. At NYU it’s pretty much 50/50. I hear what you’re saying though. There’s sort of this code of masculinity and men in our society are taught that expressing feelings or feeling your feelings isn’t.

One of my meditation teachers—a man—told me that it wasn’t until he was 30 years old that he learned that he had feelings other than hunger. He said he categorized any feelings he had beneath his chin as being hungry—he had no language for it. Instead of understanding emotions and feelings, he called them all hungry.

But I think that’s starting to change. We seem to be in a moment of rethinking and understanding these codes of masculinity that are toxic and painful. It’s not going to end overnight but the men in my life have talked pretty candidly about it and we could be on the precipice of change.

There seems to be a much larger movement is going on I think, and we are perhaps rethinking what masculinity and femininity are like and what is expected of us.

Is the drinking that takes place on college campuses another way to distract us from dealing with strong or uncomfortable emotions?

Yael: Absolutely and this is something that occurs in both genders. I remember I would get so drunk when I was a college student that I’d throw up every weekend and it was crazy. Looking back now I can’t believe I did that.

If we look at the roots of it—it’s so endemic—it comes down to a confusion and discomfort with our feelings. There’s also an element of being loose and having fun. But in my experience, it was a way to dull the anxiety and loneliness or fear and then when we bring that into sexual relationships and all that it brings up for people and being in that place of hitting on someone or wanting to be hit on. It’s just really hard

So if we bring it back to meditation, does it follow that if you know yourself better—perhaps through meditation—you’re more comfortable with your feelings and able to make better decisions?

Yael: Yes. Young people seem really interested in creating social justice and change from the heart. In the aftermath of the shooting in Florida, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Young people seem to be motivating the change through their seemingly powerful urge to make a difference. Our stories and fates and lives are really bound together. Making change through love may be the best way to make sure it lasts.

Thank you for your time today and for sharing your wisdom Yael. More information about Yael and her book can be found at Or you can catch her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @Yaelshy1.

Last Updated: Mar 8, 2018